Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ronalds, Francis

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RONALDS, Sir FRANCIS (1788–1873), inventor of the electric telegraph and meteorologist, son of Francis Ronalds, a London merchant, and of his wife, Jane, daughter of William Field, was born in London on 21 Feb. 1788. A nephew, Edmund Ronalds [q. v.], is separately noticed. The Ronalds family originally came from Scotland, but had settled at Brentford, where St. Lawrence's Church contains memorials of many of its members (Faulkner, Antiquities of Brentford, p. 65). Ronalds was educated at a private school at Cheshunt by the Rev. E. Cogan. At an early age he displayed a taste for experiment, and he acquired great skill later in practical mechanics and draughtsmanship. Under the influence of Jean André de Luc (1727–1817), whose acquaintance he made in 1814, he began to devote himself to practical electricity. In 1814 and 1815 he published several papers on electricity in Tilloch's ‘Philosophical Magazine,’ one of which records an ingenious use of De Luc's ‘electric column’ as a motive power for a clock.

Ronalds's name is chiefly remembered as the inventor of an electric telegraph. Since 1753, when the first proposal for an electric telegraph worked by statical electricity was made by a writer signing ‘C. M.’ (said to be Charles Morrison [q. v.]) in the ‘Scots Magazine’ (xv. 73), successive advances had been made abroad by Volta, Le Sage, Lomond, Cavallo, Salva, and others; but much was needed to perfect the invention. In 1816 Ronalds, in the garden of his house in the Upper Mall, Hammersmith (subsequently known as Kelmscott House, and occupied by William Morris the poet), laid down eight miles of wire, insulated in glass tubes, and surrounded by a wooden trough filled with pitch, so that the wire was capable of being statically charged by means of an electric machine. The line was kept charged normally; it was connected at either end with a Canton's pith-ball electrometer, so that, when the line was discharged suddenly by the operator at one end, the action became at once evident to the operator at the other end. In order to render the apparatus capable of transmitting different signals, two similar discs, on each of which was marked a number of words, letters, and figures, were attached to the seconds-arbors of two clocks beating dead seconds, and the discs were thus made to rotate synchronously before the operators at the two ends of the line. In front of either of these rotating discs was placed a fixed disc, perforated at one place, so that only one symbol was visible at a given time to either operator. To insure that this symbol should be the same at the same instant in both cases, a special signal (produced by means of an increased charge, which detonated a ‘gas-pistol’) was sent through the line, when the word ‘prepare’ was visible at the transmitting end, and repeated until the receiving operator signalled that he had adjusted his instrument so that the same word was simultaneously visible to him. The two dials were then known to be travelling in unison, and the transmitting operator could signal any given symbol by discharging the line when that symbol was visible on the disc at his own end of the line. Ronalds showed that on his line the time of transmission of each symbol was almost insensible (but foresaw and explained the retardation which must take place in lines of considerable electrostatic capacity, such as submarine cables). Ronalds's instrument was of real practical use, and the brilliant idea of using synchronously rotating discs, now employed in the Hughes printing apparatus, was entirely his own. The only defect in his invention was the comparative slowness with which a succession of symbols could be transmitted.

On 11 July 1816 Ronalds wrote to Lord Melville [see Dundas, Robert Saunders], then first lord of the admiralty, offering to demonstrate the practicability of his scheme. After some correspondence, Mr. (afterwards Sir) John Barrow [q. v.], secretary to the admiralty, wrote on 5 Aug. 1816 that ‘telegraphs of any kind are now [i.e. after the conclusion of the French war] totally unnecessary, and that no other than the one now in use [a semaphore telegraph] will be adopted.’ Sir John Barrow's son explained later that this now famous letter was written entirely at the suggestion of his father's superiors. Ronalds first published an account of his invention in 1823 (with a preface, in which he bids ‘a cordial adieu to electricity’), under the title ‘Descriptions of an Electric Telegraph and of some other Electrical Apparatus;’ a reprint, suggested by Mr. Latimer Clark, was published in 1871. In this pamphlet Ronalds speaks of his invention in a tone half of banter, half of prophecy. ‘In the summer of 1816,’ he writes, ‘I amused myself by wasting, I fear, a great deal of time and no small expenditure on the subject;’ but he was nevertheless confident that if his line had been five hundred miles long, instead of eight, it would have worked as well, and fully foresaw the practical revolution which the electric telegraph might effect. Of his official rebuff he writes with characteristic good nature: ‘I felt very little disappointment, and not a shadow of resentment … because every one knows that telegraphs have long been great bores at the admiralty’ (p. 24). Between 1816 and 1823 Ronalds travelled for two or three years through Europe and the East, and appears at this time to have begun collecting his large library of works on electricity and kindred subjects. In 1825 he invented and patented a perspective tracing instrument, intended to facilitate drawing from nature, which he improved about 1828, and described in a work called ‘Mechanical Perspective.’ These instruments seem to be the only ones for which he took out patents; the original instrument came into the possession of Sir C. Purcell Taylor, bart., in 1889. In 1836 he published, in collaboration with Dr. Blair, a series of sketches of the ‘Druidic Remains at Carnac,’ made with the Ronalds perspective instrument, and accompanied by written descriptions.

Early in 1843 Ronalds was made honorary director and superintendent of the Meteorological Observatory, which was then established at Kew by the British Association for the Advancement of Science. On 1 Feb. 1844 he was elected F.R.S. During his stay at Kew, Ronalds devised a system of continuous automatic registration for meteorological instruments by means of photography, and applied it to the atmospheric electrometer, the thermometer, barometer, declination-magnet, and horizontal and vertical force magnetographs. The first instrument was set regularly to work on 4 Sept. 1845. In a report read at the annual visitation of the Greenwich Observatory, on 1 June 1844, Sir George Biddell Airy (1801–1892) attributed the invention in part to Sir Charles Wheatstone (1802–1875) [q. v.]; but Ronalds asserted that the only assistance he had received was in the chemical portion of the process, and that was given by Mr. Collen, a photographer (Epitome, &c., p. 1). He published descriptions of his instruments in the ‘Reports to the British Association,’ 1844 (p. 120), 1846 (‘Transactions of Sections,’ p. 10), 1849 (p. 80), 1850 (p. 176), 1851 (p. 335); in the ‘Philosophical Transactions,’ 1847; and in an ‘Epitome of the … Observations made at the Kew Observatory’ in 1848. Mr. Charles Brooke, aided like Ronalds by grants from the Royal Society, had invented independently about this time, although he began his research at a somewhat later date, a method of photographic registration similar to that of Ronalds, but somewhat inferior in its optical arrangements. Brooke received a sum of 500l. as a reward from the government for his invention and for installing his instruments at Greenwich. Colonel (afterwards Sir Edward) Sabine [q. v.] induced Ronalds to apply for a like reward, and the Marquis of Northampton and Sir John Frederick William Herschel [q. v.], then presidents of the Royal Society and the British Association respectively, induced the government to grant him 250l. A number of Ronalds's instruments were exhibited at the Paris Exhibition of 1855 (Brit. Assoc. Report for 1855). Ronalds's invention was of extreme importance to meteorologists and physicists, and although photographic registration has been in some cases replaced by mechanical registration, it is indispensable when the forces at work in the recording instrument are small; it is employed in all first-rate observatories, and has been used in many physical investigations. In points of detail, however, the methods of Ronalds have been improved by his successor, John Welsh, F.R.S. [q. v.], and others. In 1847 Ronalds, together with Dr. William Radcliffe Birt, devised a method for keeping a kite at constant height for purposes of meteorological observation (Philosophical Magazine, 1847 [3], xxxi. 191). In 1852 Ronalds retired from the directorship of the Kew Observatory, and received a civil list pension of 75l. per annum ‘for his eminent discoveries in electricity and meteorology.’

Thenceforth, with the exception of a paper on an improved barograph (Cosmos, 1856, viii. 541), Ronalds seems to have made few or no practical contributions to science. He lived for many years abroad, mostly in Italy, and was chiefly occupied in compiling a catalogue of books relating to electricity, and in completing his electrical library. In the meanwhile his invention of an electric telegraph had been marvellously developed by Wheatstone, who had seen many of the Hammersmith experiments, in conjunction with Mr. (afterwards Sir) William Fothergill Cooke [q. v.], and these two men together devised in 1837 the first electric telegraph used publicly in England. When, in 1855, a controversy arose between Wheatstone and Cooke with regard to their respective shares in the invention, Wheatstone at once acknowledged his direct debt to Ronalds, and Cooke, though less fully, acknowledged the priority of Ronalds's work; he appears to have been ignorant of it before 1837, although, when he was quite a child, his father had seen the Ronalds telegraph at work. Until 1855 Ronalds's share in the invention had been forgotten by the public. An application in 1866 to Lord Derby for some recognition of his merits, similar to that given to Wheatstone and Cooke, proved fruitless; but, as a result of a memorial addressed to Mr. Gladstone in February 1870, Ronalds was knighted on 31 March 1871. Ronalds spent the last ten years of his life at Battle in Sussex, where he was aided by his niece, Miss Julia Ronalds, in preparing his catalogue. He died, unmarried, at St. Mary's Villa, Battle, on 8 Aug. 1873.

Ronalds was a man of an extremely sensitive and retiring disposition. His extraordinary practical ingenuity would have quickly brought to any one other than this ‘least pushing of original inventors’ (W. F. Cooke) wealth and name. To such things Ronalds seems to have been indifferent, but his telegraph and the invention of photographic registration have secured for him a permanent memory.

Ronalds bequeathed 500l. to the Wollaston fund of the Royal Society as an acknowledgment of the grants made towards his scientific researches, and left his library to his brother-in-law, Samuel Carter, with instructions to preserve it ‘so as to be as of much use as possible to persons engaged in the pursuit of electricity.’ Carter, at the suggestion of Mr. Latimer Clark, gave it in trust to the Society of Telegraph (now Institution of Electrical) Engineers.

Ronalds left in manuscript a work on turning, of which part was at one time printed, and the Ronalds Library contains some unpublished manuscripts on electricity, meteorology, drawing, and surveying, and a journal of his tour in the Mediterranean, Egypt, Syria, and Greece in 1819–20. Besides the works previously mentioned, he published an illustrated reprint of his ‘Reports to the British Association.’

His original telegraph was dug up by Mr. J. A. Peacock in 1871 from the garden in Hammersmith. A portion was placed in the Pavilion Museum, Brighton, and was presented later by Mr. Latimer Clark to the General Post Office. The fragments are now in the science galleries of the South Kensington Museum, with documents attesting them. W. Walker's ‘Memoirs of Distinguished Men of Science living in 1807–8’ contains a portrait of Ronalds. There is a fine marble bust of him by Mr. Edward Davis in the library of the Institution of Electrical Engineers; a portrait in oils, by Mr. Hugh Carter, is in the possession of his sister, Mrs. Samuel Carter (of this an autotype reproduction is given in Sime's ‘Sir Francis Ronalds’); and a good likeness was published by the ‘Illustrated London News,’ 30 April 1870.

[Besides the sources quoted, see Ronalds's Scientific Papers; Catalogue of the Ronalds Library, compiled by Sir F. Ronalds, and edited by A. J. Frost, with a biographical memoir by the latter (this memoir is fairly complete; the catalogue, intended as a general bibliography of electricity, enumerates many books not in the library); Dod's Peerage, 1871; Ann. Reg. 1873, p. 149; Obituary in the Athenæum, 23 Aug. 1873; Manuscripts and various Collections of Pamphlets and Newspaper-cuttings relating to his Inventions, made by Ronalds, in the Ronalds Library; Sime's Sir Francis Ronalds … and … Electric Telegraphy; Silliman's Principles of Physics, 2nd edit. p. 617; Wheatstone's Reply to Mr. (William Fothergill) Cooke's … The Electric Telegraph, p. 17, passim; Thomas Fothergill Cooke's Authorship of the Practical Electric Telegraph, p. xxiii, passim; Robert Sabine's Electric Telegraph, pp. 10, 36, passim; Cornhill Magazine, 1860, ii. 61 et seq.; Hoppe's Gesch. d. Elektricität, p. 575, passim; Albrecht's Gesch. d. Elektricität, p. 118, passim; Moigno's Télégraphie Electrique, pp. 62, 352; R. H. Scott's ‘History of the Kew Observatory’ in Proceedings of the Royal Society, xxxix. 37 et seq. (also published separately); Brooke's paper on ‘Automatic Registration,’ &c. (Phil. Trans. 1847, pp. 59, 69); Charles V. Walker in his translation of Kaemtz's Meteorology (1845), passim; Letter from Airy in Athenæum, 12 July 1851, p. 784; Report by Professor Wheatstone and others on the Kew Observatory, in the British Association Report for 1843, p. xxxix; Reports of the Council of the British Association, 1844–51, and for 1855 (pp. xxx et seq.); information kindly given by Mr. Latimer Clark, F.R.S., Sir C. Purcell Taylor, bart., and Dr. Charles Chree, superintendent of the Kew Observatory.]

P. J. H.